Publisher and Revolutionary (1969)

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This article was first published in Magazine littéraire, 29 (1969), 39-41.

I began to work in publishing in 1959, so 10 years ago, but I had already been selling books since 1953. I was 21 years old then. I needed to make a living while going to school, and I worked in a bookstore. I had the opportunity to buy a bookstore that was completely falling apart for an extremely cheap price, the former La Hune, on rue Monsieur-le-Prince. I couldn’t continue my studies and run a bookstore at the same time. I chose the bookstore. Already at that time, I had a clear political commitment – I was a militant in the PCF – and I believed that I could combine the bookstore and political activism. In the bookstore and in publishing, I did what a bookseller and an independent editor with a certain political commitment has the capacity to do.

In 1959, I had already resold my first store to buy another, bigger, one, which I bought for a very good price, La joie de lire, on Rue Saint-Séverin. When I began to publish, the financial problem was both raised and not raised. It was raised to the extent that I had neither the financial resources nor the capital, but it was not raised because, since this bookstore already had a certain reputation, I did not have any difficulties finding a printer.

If the first book had been a failure, I would have suffered the consequences and very serious problems would have come up: this happened afterwards, when other books didn’t sell and I came very close to bankruptcy. But the book, La guerre d’Espagne by Pietro Nenni, sold well. We sold 10,000 copies of it, and for me, who was only pretending to be a publisher, this was a considerable success.

In 1959, political documents didn’t exist. This was the time of the referendum and de Gaulle’s return to power, the time of French Algeria, and no publisher thought that readers in France would be interested in them. If we take a look at the publishing scene at that time, we see that there were only some political works from Seuil, in the “Frontières ouvertes” series, a quite interesting series, but which was in a period of crisis. There was one extremely brilliant attempt, the “Petite Bibliothèque Républicaine,” from Editeurs Français Réunis, directed by a great editor, Francois Monod, but it only lasted three months. This series reached out to people outside of the party to be able to publish books that opposed the régime. Publishers did not have their political series like they all do today.

The exception was Jerome Lindon, who had already previously published an extremely courageous book, La lettre aux directeurs de la Résistance, by Paulhan, and who had just released two books against the war in Algeria: La question [The Question], by Henri Alleg, and Pour Djamila Bouhired. I was very impressed by Éditions Minuit; at that time, opposition to Paris was spreading across France, and I thought that it made perfect sense to give political texts and documents to all the militants who needed them, and who hadn’t been given them, or not sufficiently so.

Publishers want to believe that they are free to publish what they want. Publishers are intermediaries, echoes at best; at worst, they are like oscillographs, who follow the fluctuations of the market and writers. If I published Nenni to get going, it was because the French press had discussed him, the book seemed interesting to me, and no other publisher seemed to want it. It was not a question for me then, as tiny as I was and without a connection anyone and especially not with the French Left (I was a bookseller, a profession that was not held in high esteem by intellectuals, and a rank and file militant in the Communist Party) of whether I wanted to establish myself as a publisher, it was not a question of publishing anything other than a foreign book.

That’s the material explanation. There is also a “noble” explanation. In 1958-59, various antifascist forces were busy assembling; there was nothing more symbolic of antifascism than the struggle of the Spanish people, and nothing had been published in France on the Spanish Civil War until then. Showing that, above all, I wanted to contribute to the antifascist union, I published a book on the Spanish Civil War with the intention of publishing a book on the Algerian War immediately afterward--and that was L’an V de la révolution algérienne [A Dying Colonialism], by Frantz Fanon.

In 1959, however, the French people were not interested in political works. Despite the Algerian War, Lindon’s books, like mine, had a marginal impact. La question had a wide circulation, but less than two thousand copies of the other titles in the same series from Éditions Minuit were printed, and they couldn’t be found in bookstores. L’an V de la révolution algérienne appeared in October 1959. By the time of Fanon’s death in 1961, hardly three thousand copies of it had sold. Fanon’s books only began to have a wide distribution starting from 1965, even well after Sartre wrote his preface to Damnés de la terre [Wretched of the Earth]. Moreover, there was never an in-depth article on Fanon in the French press.

In these initial years, the first book that attained the same print run as Nenni’s book was La révolution algérienne par les textes, by [Andre] Mandouze, because it was important for both militants and the negotiators at Evian. But it was long, and this is typically the kind of book that doesn’t attract the general public, but nevertheless had a large impact.

I do not know my audience, and I am unsure of them. One can only be sure of a few hundred people. I know that an audience exists for certain books, but I can’t say the same for all of my publications. We had a telling experience here: since the beginning, we have taken subscriptions to our “Cahiers Libres” series, which is the political axis of editions Maspero. Now, we have reached a figure that seems significant to us, 433 subscriptions; even just two years ago, we had 180. And still, the subscription price in relation to the normal sale price of the books is very low.

I have never wanted to create a publishing house just for the sake of creating a publishing house. But things develop all by themselves, and it’s hard to stop them. My problem is that I often send books to other publishers that will handle them better than myself, and only keep those that I think I would be better able to handle than others would.

I am most attached to the “Cahiers Libres,” because that is the series that got me off the ground. Then, more recently, there have been two important series, both serious axes: the “Théorie” series, edited by Louis Althusser, and the “Économie et Socialisme” series, edited by Charles Bettelheim. These two series have given the publishing a new dimension and a more considerable influence. Moreover, Althusser and Bettelheim’s affiliation with us has undoubtedly meant that we don’t have to pretend so much to be a publishing house.

In a very general way, I believe that I’m always pretending. I don’t know if other publishers are true publishers. I’d say that there are very few true publishers. In my opinion, the true publisher is Gallimard, as they are able, on all levels, to respond to all the problems they face in an adequate fashion. One aspect where I pretend is that I don’t work enough with the author. It’s obvious that there is always more to get out of an author, which is what I don’t do. There’s a “noble” explanation for this too, and that’s that we respect the author’s freedom. Then, we send the book to the printers, and we pretend to prepare it. In fact, it’s badly prepared. there are always typographical disasters, and it seems that this is indeed true for all publishers. As for the book’s launch, this is a scandal of unpreparedness. Finally, we release the book and wait for the customers to come.

My strength is the bookstore, La joie de lire, which sells, on average, 10% of my print runs – sometimes more, when the book falls in line with the orientation of the bookstore, and other times only ten copies. But the bookstore has allowed me to see, more quickly, what people required, to contact people directly, and to sell a part of the print runs faster. This has also been a limitation, because the bookstore can’t support everything, and sometimes this gave a reduced importance to publishing. When I chose to publish La guerre d’Espagne, it was because I had seen at the bookstore that there was nothing available to people on the subject. For Fanon, it was different. Nobody knew who he was, and Peaux noires et masques blancs [Black Skin, White Masks], which Seuil published, did not sell well. Still, the bookstore is an instrument of important information.

However, I chose my books not for the bookstore, but on the basis of a political struggle. Besides, in my view the bookstore was, at other moments, also an instrument of struggle – and remains so today. The political context changed and, especially since May, publishers have understood that texts of political struggle can be absorbed, integrated, digested, and they are not dangerous so long as they are received in a certain form; whereas up until the end of the Algerian War, publishers were afraid of political literature. There has been a process of general integration, political literature is now completely widespread. In May, publishers discovered that the “leftist” market does not consist of only a few thousand people, but of hundreds of thousands who took to the streets, and that there was a “student” market. The result was the hurry to bring out books about May, with publishers often falling into the most contemptible flattery. However, the books about political struggle and reflection remain quite secondary in relation to reportage.

A year and a half ago, we introduced our “paperback series.” I had tried to propose some of my books for already existing paperback series, like Lindon’s. I suffered systematic rejections, and I decided to produce my paperback series myself. In this case, too, I am pretending; there were 5000 copies printed of the first titles. The 6F price was too expensive for a paperback book series, and insufficient for such reduced printing runs. Still, it found a market. Almost all the books printed at 5000 copies have been republished, and now we print 10,000 copies of all the books. There are a lot of technical problems. For example, the reprinting took four months, and we couldn’t keep up with the reprinting schedule, either materially or financially.

The most pressing problem for me is knowing whether publishing is a means of revolutionary activity. From the Algerian War up until May 1968, and maybe even now since we are seeing a sharp decline compared to May, the project of publishing revolutionary texts – from the perspective of information and confrontation – could have a positive effect. But in the course of this project, one runs into nearly intractable contradictions. Either one founds and develops a publishing house in order to develop the work of publishing, which is inevitable since we are in a capitalist system where one works to create and maintain a firm. Or one does the work of revolutionary formation. In many cases, these are not compatible, or more precisely, there are important contradictions between these two objectives. Only aiming to do revolutionary work is to lie, because it means denying a whole aspect of the professionalism of the publisher’s trade; and to fall back too strongly on this vocation – which is a great temptation, providing much satisfaction at the professional level, in the best sense of the word – means largely sacrificing the work of revolutionary militancy. And even if one does not personally live this contradiction, the public is there to live it in your place, and to systematically reproach you for bourgeois integration. There are even some simpleminded people who would reproach us for being only an instrument of revolutionary action, and not of revolution itself …

I think that at this first stage, such work is important, and can even be effective. But at a certain point, one has to move beyond the stage of being at the service of a revolutionary current to the stage of being this current oneself . In other words, this means either disappearing, or not playing the same role that I played before. That’s why I consider, in a certain way, the Éditions Maspero a failure: from the professional point of view, it is a success, but it isn’t the success it should be. To be a professional success, it would have to be Le Seuil or Gallimard. I think I would have no trouble becoming Le Seuil in the next two years if I had wanted to. But this isn’t the goal I have set myself, because my goal is to serve a certain revolutionary movement. I think that at a second stage, the revolutionary movement, revolutionary groups would have to take hold of their own presses, publishing houses, means of information. But there exists a very clear contradiction, at any given moment, between these empirical work that is publishing, the echo of the revolutionary movement, and deep theoretical work, which is the work of revolutionary thought, and which can only be accomplished through already-existing platforms, and a movement tied to the masses, a whole series of things that cannot be the work of a lone publishing house. As a publisher, I am the echo of political problems, but I do not have at my disposal the theoretical means to resolve them, in contrast to Althusser, for example, who can say in his series: we work in such and such a perspective because we want to achieve such and such a result. One can also anticipate the echo, coming up with a book, but if I elicit a book, it is because I know that it is already demanded, and one will always reproach me for acting in the same way as a pea seller who makes his peas larger or small depending on the demand.

At present, publishers have integrated politics; I don’t know if under other regimes they will have the same freedom as under Gaullism. Gaullism, being a strong régime, practices what intelligent strong regimes practice, that is, it considers publishing like a pressure valve and like a distraction that masks repressions far more violent at the level of everyday life. Freedom of press is very conspicuous at the international level, and permits this distraction a good conscience: “see, 150 meters from the Prefecture of Police is the Maspero bookstore (where everyone knows quite well that they give demonstrators axe handles), and we are nevertheless still strong enough to let them do this.” The weaker power, the harder it is, above all in this area, and the left is stupider than Gaullism: it’s under Guy Mollet that the most newspapers and books were seized. 1

A number of publishers a bit like our own have been set up in other countries over the last several years, in Germany, in Italy, in Spain, and in Latin America - this being the most tragic case, since they have all just been banned. Even in Sweden they have created a new publishing house, which is called Partisans-Verlaget. These publishers are doing what we did in the beginning, that is to say, mainly publishing translations of foreign books, out of necessity; they are publishing things that we have already published, more than the other way around. For a very long time we have had difficulty publishing our books abroad. It was very difficult, for example, to get others to admit that Fanon is important. Right now, it’s the opposite: foreign publishers are interested in us and all the books we publish in French are translated abroad. We even have a choice of publishers. It’s a striking contrast. Finally, what makes me most proud is not apparent at first sight. This is the fact that my publishing house rests on a large network of trustworthy people and friends, which has nothing to do with the regular connections that I often see the Parisian publishing world built on. Everything that we publish is the fruit of the labor and advice of a series of people, of comrades who consider the publishing house a useful instrument: that and nothing more, and it’s already enormous. There aren’t just close collaborators like Émile Copfermann, Jean-Philippe Talbo, Fanchita Gonzales, or Georges Dupré, the directors of the various series, such as Althusser, Bettelheim, Charrière, Memmi, Dury, and authors like Pierre Jalée, Gérard Chaliand, Maschino, Moumouni, Pierre Vidal-Naquet, Jean-Pierre Vernant, Georges Haupt, but also all those who thought all of a sudden of a book, of a subject, that “this would be important for Maspero” (in other words, it would be important for them), or who came to tell me: “You have just made a blunder.” Jean Baby has advised me enormously. And how can I say how much I owe a comrade like Régis Debray, not for his books but for the discussion that we’ve been able to have? It’s this phenomenon of constant exchanges, without formalism, that constitutes the living force of my publishing house, and which makes me think that I am perhaps not completely wrong to keep going.

– Translated by Patrick King and Salar Mohandesi. The translators would like to thank David Broder for comments on the draft.

References   [ + ]

1. Translator’s note: A French socialist politician, Guy Mollet (1905-1975) was Prime Minister from 1956-1957.

Author of the article

was a French author, translator, journalist, editor, and publisher. He was also the owner of La Joie de lire, a radical bookstore in Paris.